Photo by Tim AglerDancers dancing seem to be happy bunch. Maybe it's the endorphins coursing through their brains, or else a rare instance of true camaraderie. At West Coast Conservatory of Ballet in Orange, 12 sets of beaming dancer eyes are evidence of both. The eyes bob, dip and whirl, regarding their guest choreographer with anticipation, following her every move.
Nancy Dickson Lewis, a professor at Chapman University and the first guest choreographer to work with Backhausdance company, arranges arms and hands as dancers stand threaded in a large human clump. She asks one girl to try a roll on the floor, testing it out herself first before determining the move to be suitable.
Backhausdance started two years ago as a way for Jennifer Backhaus, its artistic director and also a Chapman professor, to hang onto her young students when they graduated. "They were really very talented, and some of them didn't necessarily want to move away," Backhaus says. "I thought they were too talented to stop dancing."
She recruited six dancers initially; the troupe has since grown to 10 women and two men. Their look is shaggy-dancer chic: short hair or ragged ponytails, most barefoot, cut-off sweats or Capri leggings. They share only their feeling and an uncommon strength.
As the dancers launch into Dickson's piece Reach,set to a Bob Marley tune, it becomes apparent. The group emphasizes contact and manipulation in space as they move broadly across the floor. Dancers carry one another and use bodies as ladders and spring pads. All that lifting gives these women sculpted bodies that would ignite even Madonna's envy—biceps AND triceps. One dancer falls backward, bending at her knees in what's called a "hinge," and another dancer runs up behind, catching her by the neck, inches from the floor.
"Wait!" Dickson says. "Danger. I need more danger."
It's not quite dance, not quite acrobatics: karate movements and occasional handstands, holds, triads and piggy-backs, and a funky intro in which the group pulsates like a large wheezing accordion. Exciting stuff. Backhaus, who has a background in gymnastics, uses these dramatic elements in her own choreography. "I love playing around with partnering, moving movement through space, not static. My dances tend to repel and propel," Backhaus says.
I last saw the troupe at the Sola Festival in Torrance, where they performed SittingonJanuaryto Bela Fleck, a piece that involved chairs, whimsy and a devil-may-care attitude—a rarity in the world of serious, esoteric, modern dance, but Backhaus had the bond and the personality to carry it off.
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Dance always finds our personality, good or bad: self-absorption, narcissism, mechanical movements, lack of imagination—or the overwhelming impression that some troupe somewhere is guided by an eerie inner light. That's Backhausdance.
During the "Redemption" section of Reach,Linda-Joy Tashiro, the smallest dancer in the company, a tiny thing with diamond eyes, had it. As three other dancers—William Lu, Mason Lawrence Taylor and Wainani Hansen Lei—held her feet, clawing at her, grabbing her ankles and body, she rocked forward from her knees, hands grasping, a tenseness to her quality of movement, arching her back forward and backward. She was an underwater plant, swaying in the current, leafy tendrils pulsating: a transformation only Backhausdance would bring about.
"I look for a good technique and a willingness to work really hard," Backhaus says. As well as other stuff you can't learn: "A beautiful spirit—that is more important than if you point your feet. I can teach you how to point your feet. You've got to have something that you want to share."
BACKHAUSDANCE PERFORMS SITTING ON JANUARY, DISINTEGRATION, JOURNEY FOR FOUR, REACH AND LA JUPE AT THE SOPHIA CLARKE THEATER, MT. SAC PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 1100 N. GRAND AVE., WALNUT, (909) 468-4050. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M. CALL FOR TICKET PRICES.